Najaf political, religious leaders forge an accord to end standoff

Cleric's outlawed militia would become legitimate political group under deal

Crisis In Iraq

May 12, 2004|By Monte Morin and Patrick J. McDonnell | Monte Morin and Patrick J. McDonnell,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqi religious and political leaders in Najaf agreed late yesterday on how to end the crisis gripping the embattled city, while an American general said he might recruit Shiite militiamen now fighting U.S. soldiers for a security force there.

The accord was hammered out among about three dozen moderates and emissaries of Muqtada al-Sadr, the militant Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army seized control of Najaf and other towns last month. Al-Sadr's militia has been fighting pitched battles with U.S. forces in and around the holy Shiite city.

Under the agreement al-Sadr's outlawed militia would become a legitimate political organization, participants said. A criminal case against al-Sadr would be postponed until after June 30, when the U.S.-led coalition is scheduled to turn over sovereignty to an Iraqi caretaker government. Al-Sadr is wanted in connection with the murder of a rival cleric in Najaf last year.

The deal is to be submitted today to Najaf's religious leadership for approval, participants said.

"This is the way to solve this crisis, which is threatening everybody," declared Qais Khazali, al-Sadr's chief aide in Najaf.

What U.S. officials think of the agreement remains to be seen.

But military commanders have stressed that they want to resolve peacefully the crisis that has gripped Najaf since al-Sadr's black-clad forces took over and U.S. troops moved south from Baghdad to confront them.

The U.S. Army commander whose troops are facing off with al-Sadr's militia announced yesterday that he might recruit those same insurgents for an Iraqi civil defense force he plans to build in Najaf.

"I'm not against identifying some of those young men to become part of a legitimate Iraqi security force," Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters in Baghdad. "This is their holy city."

Pressure has been mounting from within the Shiite community for al-Sadr to leave Najaf, where he is not especially popular and has long been at odds with the Shiite religious establishment. Residents have complained that the lucrative flow of pilgrims to Najaf has almost ceased since al-Sadr's forces took control.

Yesterday, hundreds of people marched through the streets of Najaf, calling on al-Sadr to leave. It is the second day of such demonstrations, and a major march is planned for Friday, the Muslim day of rest.

Meanwhile, gunmen south of Baghdad killed one Russian engineer and kidnapped two others, prompting Moscow to urge hundreds of Russian workers to leave, according to news service reports from Moscow.

The unknown attackers fired at the engineers' car near Baghdad as they returned from work Monday with no security guards, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. The Russians were described as employees of a private company working on a power plant project south of Baghdad.

Farther west, insurgents attacked a civilian supply convoy on the road between Baghdad and Jordan, and some people were unaccounted for, a U.S. official said. The 21-vehicle convoy was operated by a subsidiary or subcontractor of Kellogg, Brown & Root, which is a Halliburton Co. subsidiary.

The convoy probably was ferrying goods to a U.S. military base, an official said, but there were no U.S. soldiers accompanying the convoy. A number of vehicles were destroyed.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Killed in Iraq

As of yesterday, 772 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 634 U.S. soldiers have died.

Latest identifications

Sgt. Rodney A. Murray, 28, Ayden, N.C.; killed Sunday in a vehicle accident between Baghdad and Scania when a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and his military vehicle collided; Army Reserves 351st Military Police Company; Ocala, Fla.

Army Spc. Isela Rubalcava, 25, El Paso, Texas; killed Saturday in Mosul by a mortar round; assigned to the 296th Combat Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division; Fort Lewis, Wash.

Army Spc. Chase R. Whitham, 21, Harrisburg, Ore.; died Saturday when he was electrocuted in a swimming pool in Mosul; assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division; Fort Lewis, Wash.

Army Spc. James Holmes, 29, East Grand Forks, Minn.; died Saturday of injuries suffered while on patrol earlier in the week; assigned to 141st Engineer Combat Battalion, Company C, North Dakota National Guard; Bismarck, N.D.

Associated Press

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